1 in 4 Pastors Have Struggled with Mental Illness, Finds LifeWay and Focus on the Family
“The Bible is filled with people who struggled with suicide, or were majorly depressed or bi-polar,” said Focus on the Family psychologist Jared Pingleton in the LifeWay release. “David was totally bi-polar. Elijah probably was as well. They are not remembered for those things. They are remembered for their faith.”
LifeWay Research examines how well (or not well) churches address mental health.
Your pastor is just as likely to experience mental illness as any other American, according to a LifeWay Research survey commissioned by Focus on the Family.
Nearly 1 in 4 pastors (23 percent) acknowledge they have “personally struggled with mental illness,” and half of those pastors said the illness had been diagnosed, according to the poll (infographics below). One in four U.S. adults experience mental illness in a given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Recent deaths by suicide of high-profile pastors’ children, including Rick Warren’s son Matthew and Joel Hunter’s son Isaac, have prompted increased attention to mental illness from pastors’ pulpits and pens. Warren launched “The Gathering on Mental Health and the Church” this past spring. High-profile pastors, including NewSpring Church pastor Perry Noble, have publicly documented their struggles with mental illness.
“Here’s what we know from observation: If you reveal your struggle with mental illness as a pastor, it’s going to limit your opportunities,” Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research, told CT. “What happens is pastors who are struggling with mental illness tend not to say it until they are already successful. So Perry Noble, running a church of 30,000 plus, just last year says ‘I have severe depression.’”
“We have to break the stigma that causes people to say that people with mental illness are just of no value,” he added. “These high-profile suicides made it okay to talk about, but I think Christians have been slower than the population at large to recognize what mental illness is, let alone what they should do.”
The majority of pastors (66 percent) still rarely or never talk about mental illness in sermons or before large groups, the survey found. About one-fourth of pastors bring up mental illness several times a year, and 7 percent say they tackle it once a month or more.
“Our research found people who suffer from mental illness often turn to pastors for help,” Stetzer noted in a news release. “But pastors need more guidance and preparation for dealing with mental health crises. They often don’t have a plan to help individuals or families affected by mental illness, and miss opportunities to be the church.”
Other “key disconnects” uncovered by the study:
- Two-thirds of pastors (68 percent) say their church maintains a list of local mental health resources for church members. But few families (28 percent) are aware those resources exist.
- Only a quarter of churches (27 percent) have a plan to assist families affected by mental illness, according to pastors. And only 21 percent of family members are aware of a plan in their church.
- Few churches (14 percent) have a counselor skilled in mental illness on staff, or train leaders how to recognize mental illness (13 percent), according to pastors.
The disconnect isn’t because of a lack of compassion. Most pastors (74 percent) say they aren’t reluctant to get involved with those with acute mental illnesses, and nearly 60 percent have provided counseling to people who were later diagnosed.
Instead, pastors can feel overwhelmed at times with how to properly respond to the mental health needs of members of their congregation; 22 percent said they were reluctant to do more because it took “too much time.”
“Pastors are trained for spiritual struggle. They’re not trained for mental illness,” Stetzer told CT. “And so, what they will often do is pass someone off. I don’t think what that 20 percent says is ‘Forget you,’ but ‘I can’t handle this.’”
The silence at church can lead to a reluctance to share, Atlanta-based psychiatrist Michael Lyles told LifeWay. “The vast majority of [my evangelical Christian patients] have not told anybody in their church what they were going through, including their pastors, including small group leaders, everybody,” he said in the release.
In fact, 10 percent of the 200 respondents with mental illness said they have switched churches after a church’s poor response to them, and another 13 percent stopped going altogether or couldn’t find a church.
But more than half of regular churchgoers with mental illness said they stayed where they were, and half also said that their church has been supportive. One way churches can be supportive, Stetzer suggested to CT, is regular meetings between pastoral staff and the person suffering from mental illness, even as the individual continues to receive consistent medical treatment.